tv Book Discussion on Liar Temptress Soldier Spy CSPAN February 22, 2015 2:30am-3:31am EST
please welcome karen abbott. [applause] >> thank you first for that lovely introduction. thanks for the savannah book festival for bringing me her and thank you for coming out here today. i'm very excited to be back in savannah, one of my favorite southern towns. in fact some of the most interesting anecdotes and quote is came across during my research for the book were about savannah women. for example in december of 1864, when union general william tecumseh sherman captured savannah one local woman
proclaimed, i wish a thousand pins were stuck in his bed and he was strapped down on them. another woman and her friends were forced to host a group of occupying union soldiers in their homes, and speaking for that group wound woman quipped can just the meteor thought of being among the damn yankees are enough to make all prematurely old. of course there was another craftier side for these women. when they used their southern charges to bewitch the occupying soldiers and they called it, quote, buttering those yankees to serve our own ends. so i'll talk how i got into this book. i am from philadelphia. i was born and raised in philadelphia. so i moved to atlanta, georgia in 2001, and spent six years there are and it was quite a culture shock as you can imagine. i had to get used to seeing the occasionol con fred rat flags on the lawn, the jokes about the war of northern aggression, and
just the idea that the civil war seeped into daily life and conversation down south in a way it never does up north. and the point was driven home when i was stuck in traffic on route 400. if anyone has spend time in atlanta you have been stuck in traffic on route 400 -- for two hours behind a pickup truck with a bumper sticker that said "don't blame me. i voted for jefferson davis." [laughter] >> who of course is the president of the confess was si. i was stuck behind the truck for two hours and had quite a bit of time to start thinking more in depth about the civil war, and my mind always goes, to what were the wimp doing? and not just any women. what were the bad women doing? the defiant women, in the revolutionary became doing? some women did things like knit socks and sew uniforms and hold bizarres to raise money for supplies. other women became informal
recruiting officers especially southern women. they shamed any man who shirked his duty to fight. there was a great story about one southern lady who was very embarrassed by the fact her fiancee did not enlist so she sent over her slave with a backage and the package contained a skirt and a note and the note said ware this skirt or volunteer. he volunteered. and some women dared to go further. and i wanted to find four such women, women who lied, spied, dranked, and murdered their way through the war, and i think i managed to do that. my goal with the book was to weave a tapestry and tell the story of the civil war, hopefully in a way that had not been told before and it was important to me that their stories intersected in interesting ways. there was a cause and effect. one woman's circumstances would affect another woman's behavior and vice versa. throughout the war. i usually do this talk with a
slide show and all of the slide is use are actually in the book. the book is foul pictures of the women and some civil war events and locales. this is the first time i'm doing it like this and i'm just going to tell you 12 of my favorite people, facts and events of the civil war. i'm going to start off with bell boyd; a 17-year-old girl living in virginia, when the war broker out. she was a confederate girl and was interesting to me because she was all -- she had no filter not even for herself. one of my favorite anecdotes of bell body has to do with a letter she sent to her cousin when she was 16, lobbying him to find her a husband. i'll read this letter. i am tall i weigh 106 and a half pounds. my form is beautiful. my eyes are of a dark blue and so expressive.
my hair of a rich brown and i think i tie it up nicely. my neck and arms are beautiful. and my foot is perfect. only wear size two and a half shoes. my teeth the same pearly whiteness, i think perhaps a little whiter. nose quite as large as ever, beautifully shaped and indeed i am decidedly the most beautiful of all of your cousins. sobell had no problems with self-esteem. if you have to have a copy of the book you can look it up and make your conclusions about her beauty or lack thereof. she kicks things off in july of 1861. the union small group of union forces are marching up the -- they were planning on having a fourth of july celebration. publish... block...
>> she decides to tap into her wide network of confederate family members and friends who are in the army and to get herself a piece of the army, to the contribute her own work for the rebels. and she becomes a courier and spy for the rebel army. and belle is a little bit of a seductress. it was very rare, especially in a 17-year-old girl. i like to say if sarah palin and
miley cyrus had a 19th century baby -- [laughter] it would have been belle boyd. [laughter] she was a little bit like civil war girls gone wild. [laughter] and she seduced union men, confederate men. i like to file this one under things you can't make up. this is why i like nonfiction, it's always funnier than fiction. one of her reported paramours was a man by the name of major dick long. [laughter] i must be a 12-year-old boy, i found that really hilarious. [laughter] she also reportedly she told one northern reporter she was quote, closeted for four hours with union general james shields and subsequently wrapped a rebel flag around his head to celebrate this conquest. so men loved belle boyd. women did not like belle boyd quite as much. they had several nicknames for her, one of which was quote, the fastest girl in virginia or anywhere else more that matter.
[laughter] but belle would go on to have many exciting adventures throughout the civil war that i talk about in the book. the next person that i want to talk about is a spy named private frank thompson. and private frank thompson comes into the war with a secret. private frank thompson is actually a woman named emma edmunds and has been living as a man for two years. and emma edmunds had quite an interesting and difficult childhood. she was born and raised in canada to a father who was increasingly disappointed by the fact that his of wife kept bearing sons -- excuse me, daughters. he wanted a son. and edmunds did her best to become a son figure to her father but still failed him. and he told emma he was going to arrange a marriage for her just as he had done for all of her older sisters, and emma didn't want any part of this. she craved the life of excitement for herself and she decided that one day she was going to cut her hair, bind her breasts and trade in her man
suit for a woman's dress and start living, um life as private frank thompson. and she becomes an itinerant bible salesman and migrates to the united states and starts hearing about abolitionist john brown and decides she wants to enlist. she considers herself a devout christian and is against the idea of slavery and wants to fight for the union cause. so in the spring of 1861 in detroit, she enlists. and you might ask well, how could she pass the medical examination and fool the doctors in order to become a private for the union army? it's a good question, and, you know doctors across the country were told to conduct thorough medical examinations, but they all flouted these rules. they had quotas to fill, bodies to get out there as quickly as possible, so they conducted these rather cursory medical exams. they really only helped if you had powder cartridges, if you had enough fingers to pull the trigger and feet to march.
that was pretty much it. so the doctor passes emma into the army, and she takes on the name private frank thompson, and she starts living among her comrades. and you might ask, well, how did they not detect she was a woman? after all, they're sleeping in the same tents etc., and how did they not, you know, discern that a woman was among them? and i came to the conclusion, i should say that emma was one of about 400 women for both north and south who disguised themselves as men and fought in the union or confederate armies. and i came to the conclusion that most of them got away with this because nobody knew what a woman would look like wearing pants. you know people were so used to seeing women's bodies pushed and pulled into these exaggerated shapes with corsets and cent lins that the very idea of a woman wearing pants was so unfathomable that even if she were standing in front of you wearing pants you wouldn't see it. so women sort of brilliantly exploited ideas of femininity
>> these are confederate spies living in washington, d.c. and rose was in a very difficult position. her whole life had fallen apart in the years leading up to the war. she had lost five children in four year, if you can imagine that. she had lost her husband in a freak accident, and she had lost her access to the white house. this is somebody who had been friends with high ranking democratic politicians for years leading up to the civil war. she'd even been a close adviser to president james buchanan, and she lost all of this when lincoln and the republicans came into power and lincoln took over the white house. so in the spring of 1861 when a confederate captain approached rose and asked her to form a confederate spy ring in the
capital of washington d.c., rose jumps at the chance and she begins cultivating sources -- by cultivating i mean sleeping with -- [laughter] also several union men. in fact, her most important source and reported lover was senator henry wilson of massachusetts who was not only an abolitionist republican, but he was also lincoln's chairman of the committee on military affairs. and here's a little brief clip of a love letter he purportedly wrote to rose. you know that i do love you. i am suffering this morning. in fact i am sick physically and mentally and know nothing that would soothe me so much as an hour with you. so you can imagine they had some very interesting and lucrative pillow talk that rose took full advantage of. my next favorite thing is rose greene's house cipher which is fascinating to look at. if anybody's familiar with edgar allen poe's story the bold bug it has mysterious-looking
symbols that are concealing letters, numbers and words. rose had a very special symbol for president lincoln. it was this sort of upside down triangle bisected by a slash, and lincoln shows up in a lot of her cipher work. rose had two nicknames for president lincoln. weapon was bean pole, and the other -- one was bean pole and the other was satan. [laughter] gives you an idea of her feelings there. and it was really fascinating to learn more about her spy craft. when she didn't have time to write messages in her cipher, she found other ways to communicate with confederate officials. she learned the morse code, for example, and at certain appointed times confederate scouts were told to watch her windows for signals and rose would raise and lower her blinds according to to the dots and dashes of the morse code. and she could achieve the same effect by using the precise flutteringings of her fan -- flutterings of her fan, so pretty crafty there.
and her spy craft proved useful very early on in the war. lincoln and the north basically thought the war was going to be over in 90 days. their grand plan was to meet the confederates at the battle of bull run. i once got in trouble for saying bull run in the south, so i won't make that mistake again, the battle of ma nas us, and they would advance on to richmond and win the war. well rose and the confederates had a different idea about this and in the days leading up to the battle, rose -- after seducing senator henry wilson and getting some valuable information -- summoned a 16-year-old courier named betty to her home on lafayette square in washington, d.c., and she wrote up a dispatch and tied it up in a piece of black silk and rolled it up in betty's hair so it was cleverly concealed much like my hair's probably carrying a few dispatches right now. [laughter] and she told betty duval that she was just going to cross over
the lines, and the union sentries would think she was nothing more than a pretty girl on her way home from market. they'd wave her on through. so betty goes across the lines and she arrives at general beauregard's headquarters, undoes her hair in a dramatic and romantic fashion and hands over this note which basically told the confederate forces exactly how many union troops to expect and when they were planning on marching so the confederates could position themselves and be ready. and we of course, we we know the confederates kicked some butt and the war would go on much longer than 09 days, obviously. next -- t 0 cays. next american is a union spy by the name of elizabeth van lieu. she was number one a union spy living in the confederate capital of richmond, so they were opposed on that front. and whereas rose was outspoken and brazen, elizabeth was quiet and discreet and really cunning.
and whereas rose was a celebrated beauty one of elizabeth's contemporaries wrote that she was, quote: never as pretty as her portrait showed. [laughter] yeah. if you could see the picture of elizabeth, it's quite cruel. but elizabeth also had an interesting upbringing. she was born and raised in richmond but was sent north to philadelphia to be educated and was under the care of an abolitionist governess. when she returned to richmond, she was appalled at the condition of the slaves, and she had become an abolitionist herself and decided to fight for the union cause. before the war people thought elizabeth was just sort of eccentric. she was a strange woman who had never married, she was living with her mother in this grand old mansion in richmond, she was sort of an eccentric character. but after the war it was very dangerous for elizabeth to be outspoken about abolitionist opinions and to have of a
perceived northern sympathy. she was the recipient of many death threats from her neighbors, confederate detectives followed her wherever she went. but nevertheless, elizabeth decided to form a union spy ring in the confederate capital of richmond, and she began recruiting people from all walks of life. one of them was her brother by the name of john van lew and i had the great pleasure of calculating with the great grand -- of connecting with the great grandson of one of john's towers, and he told me -- daughters, and he told me incredible things. and just to give you a little taste of that, it mostly had to do with family's hardware businessment they had a prominent hardware business for years in richmond and one of the most impressive buildings in the state of virginia. and he used the hardware business as a front for his spy ring in a way. he would take blank invoices and purchase orders and fill them out as if they were regular business documents but every number he wrote down
corresponded with certain military terminology. for example 370 iron hinges might mean 3700 cavalry. so when he crossed the lines and confederates looked at his papers, they would just think this was the normal course of business, but once he got over to union lines and to his contacts, he was able to interpret everything and give them the information they needed. but elizabeth van lew's great coup was in the form of a woman named mary jane becauser. elizabeth had freed all of the family slaves, and many of them had stayed on to work for her, and elizabeth got a bright idea. she had heard that verena davis who was jefferson davis' wife, needed to staff the white house. she was looking for help and she put out a call to the social rideties of richmond to -- ladies of richmond to help her staff the white house and send over any good recommendations for staff. and elizabeth decided to pay mrs. davis a business.
and she says well, i have a girl for you. she's not very bright and she stumbles in the kitchen, but she's loyal, and she'll work very hard for you and your family. so elizabeth sends over mary jane bowser who was a former family slave in the van lew household. and little does anyone know that mary jane is not only literate but gifted with a photographic memory. so while she's dusting jefferson davis' desk and picking up the children's toys she's also sneaking peeks at his confidential papers and eavesdropping on his conversations and reporting all of this back to elizabeth van lew. what made all of this even more dangerous and adding another layer of treachery was that john van lew, elizabeth's brother was married to an ardent confederate sympathizer, and they're all living in the same house. so they're conducting all of this business knowing that there's somebody amongst them who, if she had any inkling about what they were doing or any evidence, she would not hesitate to report this
immediately to confederate authorities. and elizabeth knew that as well. the next person i'd like talk about is confederate general stonewall jackson who i'm sure, is a very familiar person to many people in this room. and i like stonewall. he was sort of the rock star of the civil war. he was sort of my civil war boyfriend. i liked him such an eccentric interesting, brilliant man. but i like the way that southerners perceived him in particular and the way they treated him. and it was a great story i came across about stonewall jackson in a hotel lobby in the shenandoah valley in 1862. and women are cornering him, they're swarming him, they're ripping buttons off of his coat and keeping them as souvenirs and belle boyd is among this crowd. she reports that she hears him say, ladies, ladies, this is the very first time i've been surrounded by the enemy. laugh -- [laughter] smooth guy right? so belle boyd, of course is
obsessed with stonewall jackson. so obsessed that she tells reporters that she wants to quote: occupy his tent and share his dangers. [laughter] which if i were stonewall jack soften, would have frightened me more than anything the -- jackson would have frightened me, just the fact that belle boyd wanted to sleep this my tent. would have been enough to make me run. my next one is blockade runners of the civil war, and i usually show a cartoon with this depicting a woman's cent lin that at the apex of its popularity reached a diameter of six feet. >> southern women were quite expert at this she managed to
conceal a roll of army cloth, several pairs of cavalry boots a roll of crimson flannel cans of preserved meats and a bag of coffee. that was the contraband tally for a single crossing. [laughter] belle boyd was sort of the queen of this blockade and she specialized in smuggling weaponnings. and she sort of recruited a group of southern ladies to help her in this endeavor. and one fall morning in 1861 the 28th pennsylvania aa woke to -- awoke to discover 400 pistols cavalry equipment for 200 men and 1400 musket were missing.
waiting transfer to southern lines thanks to belle boyd and her network of ladies. and to me, this was one of the most fascinating parts about women's roles in the civil war. they were able to to take society's ideas and constructs about womanhood and perceived weaknesses and exploit them brilliantly to their own benefit. and they used their gender as a psychological disguise. physically, they're hiding things in their hair, under their hoop skirts and psychologically women would have a ready answer if they were ever accused of treasonous activity. and this had happened a couple of times to elizabeth van lew and her response always was how dare you accuse me of such behavior. i am a defenseless woman, you know? [laughter] and it worked. it was something that people did not know how to respond to and it was that and it was quite an effective and brilliant way -- [inaudible] the next person is detective allen pinkerton and i had no
idea he was this involved in secret service work during the war, but he was. he was hired to do secret service work for the union army, and his first mission was to conduct a stakeout on confederate spy rose greenhelm. allen pinkerton and two of his best men go to rose's home on lafayette square. rose always liked to say, by the way, her home was quote, within rifle range of the white house. [laughter] and allen pinkerton has to get up stand on two of his detectives' shoulders just to peek in her window, and what does he see, but rose sitting there on the couch with a traitorous union captain, and they're looking over maps and fortifications and papers that clearly have information about the war and about union plans. and pinkerton is furious. pinkerton declares rose public enemy number one and decides he's going to make it his
mission in life to get rose which makes for some interesting cat and mouse activity as the war goes on. and this was also another entering part about women's roles in the civil war -- interesting part about women's roles in the civil war. women had always been victims of war, they were never perpetrators, and loyalty was the prime attribute of femininity itself. women's loyalty was always assumed. so for the very first time they're grappling with the idea that women are not only capable of treasonous activity but they're more capable than men. one lincoln official had this great quote that sort of sums it up he says: what are we going to do with these fashionable women spies? and it's something they have to spend quite a bit of time answering. my next person is a fellow by the name of benjamin stringfellow. he is a confederate spy for general jeb stewart.
he had blond hair blue eyes, and he weighed 94 pounds. one of his come raids said he had a waist -- comrades said he had a waste just like a woman's. he had sort of an ingenious mode of getting his information. he would dress in elaborate ball gowns and go to union military balls and wait for the men to ask him to dance. and they did ask him to dance. they thought sally martin was very charming. and while sally martin was dancing with these union soldiers, she would find out whatever she could about ulysses s. grant's plans and report it back to general jeb stewart. because -- so i like to include him because it just goes to show the men were in on the cross-dressing action during the civil war too. [laughter] number 11 is spy disguises. i was fascinated by the way people disguised themselves as spies during the civil war.
things that seem so rudimentary and primitive today. people would have epileptic fits, one guy removed his glass eye, they would feign a limp, they would pose as peddlers itinerant photographers and some people disguised themselves as slaves which i thought was odd until it makes sense when you think about just as nobody expected a woman to disguise themself as a man, nobody expected people to disguise themselves as slaves. it was all well and good unless it became excessively hot or started raining and your disguise literally started running could down your skin. this actually happened to one of my spies later on in the book. and number 12 my favorite things during the civil war, was how the female soldiers got caught. i mentioned earlier there were about 400 women who disguised themselves a men and en-- as men and enlisted in the war and
you know, the reports started circulating as the war went on about women, you know, in the reactions. and people were -- in the ranks and people were shocked about this. even more shocking to me was how they were discovered. there was one private her captain threw an apple at her, and she tried to grab the hem of her nonexistent apron to catch the apple, thereby giving herself away since she was not warring an apron. one woman recruit reportedly forgot how to put on pants. she tried to pull them over her head. [laughter] and the final one and my very favorite, a corporal in new jersey gave birth while she was on picket duty. [laughter] so the jig was up. so anyway those are my 12 favorite people, events and facts of the civil war. if anybody has any questions or any stories or wants to tell me how their own ancestors got rid of the damn yankees, i would love to hear it.
[applause] >> [inaudible] line up here. in. >> [inaudible] rose -- came back from europe, whatever happened to little rose who she left in a convent in paris? >> um, the question was about rose and what happens to her after the war. and just to back up a little bit about that later on in the war rose was sent by jefferson davis to be a lobbyist on behalf of the confederacy to try to convince england and france to recognize the south as its own legitimate country which was unprecedented for an american president of the south, you
know the south obviously considered itself its own country, to send a woman to do its business. so that was quite a remarkable thing. and what happens to rose's daughter after the war? she grows up and gets married and misses her mama very dearly and there's not too much information about, about little rose. but she does marry and sort of go on to have her own happy and productive life. but she and her mother were very close, and i should say that little rose was an important mother -- part of her mother's spy plans. her mother would often use her daughter to send messages and hide messages and things like that. so rose o'neill greenhowe was is so invested in the southern cause she was willing to not only risk her own life, but that of her 8-year-old daughter as well. >> any more questions? [inaudible conversations]